Monday morning's weekly staff meeting is under way. A colleague is previewing the upcoming schedule when I see a bird through the floor-to- ceiling window behind her. Without moving an inch, my gaze shifts from the week ahead to the American elm and the bird clinging to its bark.
The bird darts behind the trunk before I can focus on it. My random choice of chairs this morning has given me an accidental perspective I hadn't counted on.
Before my attention can return to the meeting, the bird swivels back into view. This time, my focus is immediately locked on it. The vertical posture and black and white patterns identify the bird as a woodpecker.
That's not especially surprising. Just last week I saw a downy woodpecker in the parking lot behind the building.
But this woodpecker has an uninterrupted strip of white that appears to edge the wing where it rests against the bird's breast and belly. This diagnostic patch startles me almost as much as the stroke of fortune that landed me a job here on Capitol Hill. Some equally unlikely wind has blown a yellow-bellied sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius) into a tree just 20 feet away.
White wing feathers called coverts produce the vertical wing patch that tells me this is a sapsucker. The patch will reveal itself in flight as a white wing bar that reaches diagonally from the leading edge of the wing's "elbow" back to the bird's body. These white wing coverts set sapsuckers apart from all other woodpeckers.
As the bird clings to the tree, I see a distinctive white band curving from just above the chisel-shaped black bill to the back of the neck and then forward again to the breast. The sapsucker is showing me its right side, and the head-neck stripe looks like the letter C.
As the bird continues to circle the trunk, I can see a bold white patch covering its chin. This is a female. The throat patch, completely bordered by black, is red in adult males. Both sexes have a red forehead.
The soft yellow belly that gives the bird its name is hard to see while she clings to the bark. In flight, this sapsucker will display a yellow wash that starts with the breast and then fades to white as it approaches the tail.
The yellow-bellied sapsucker is a medium-size woodpecker. From its bill to the end of its tail, the bird is about 8 inches, making it a bit smaller than a robin. It is also a lean bird, weighing less than 2 ounces.
There are other sapsuckers in North America, but they are western birds. In the Chesapeake region, the red-bellied woodpecker is the closest relative.
As their names suggests, sapsuckers drill a series of shallow holes in a tree's trunk, causing the tree to exude sap into the holes. Later, the birds return to drink the nutritious sap and eat the insects that have become trapped in the sticky goo.
I have been surprised by how precisely these birds can drill their sap wells. Some trees show row after row of evenly spaced holes.
Yellow-bellied sapsuckers spend the breeding season in New England, the Great Lakes region, and across much of Canada. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the species is showing increasing population trends, especially in the southern portions of its breeding range.
Like most woodpeckers, sapsuckers excavate nesting cavities. Birds pair up for the season, producing three or four eggs. The babies hatch in less than two weeks. Only a month later, they are ready to fledge. Next year, the adults will select different mates, and the cycle begins anew.
As cold weather approaches, the sapsuckers head south. They winter in an area that stretches from Long Island to Oklahoma and south into Mexico.
We will see them here in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, but don't look for them in the higher elevations of the Appalachian Ridge. They detour around those snowy mountaintops.
You shouldn't expect to see them in the heart of the city, either. The sapsucker outside the office window is certainly just passing through. These birds are forest dwellers, and she will no doubt be on her way to denser tree cover before long. For now she continues to slip in and out of view.
My attention slides back and forth from the routine planning of our meeting to the immediacy of the unexpected visitor just outside the window.
Time and space seem elastic. I am seated in a comfortable office, discussing events in the future. I am also in the American elm, dancing with a yellow-bellied sapsucker along the trunk.
I am in the future and in the present; in the office and out on that tree. I am carried between two unlikely realities, floating on the winds of chance.